When 11-year-old Kailey Hopkins and her family moved from Lincoln Park to Highland Park two years ago, she left behind a slew of friends who liked to play tag and kickball. Kailey found herself trying to fit in with girls who were more interested in socializing than sports.
“Fifth and sixth grade are pretty tough years, and being new and an outsider was very difficult,” says Kailey’s mom, Marissa Hopkins, who also has a 14-year-old son. “Girls are constantly in or out of cliques. There’s a lot of drama with girls that I did not find at all with boys.”
Between the ages of 8 and 12, making friends and fitting in move up on most girls’ priority list. While you can’t choose your daughter’s friends, you can help her make good choices and deal with the bumpy road that often comes with the territory. And parents who find a way to talk—and listen—to their kids set the stage for open communication at other developmental hurdles, such as dealing with peer pressure, according to research from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Ups and downs are healthy
But it’s not always easy—for parents or their daughters.
“The hardest part is finding people that actually know you and like to be with you every day,” says Kailey, who starts seventh grade at Northwood Junior High School in September. “Now I just enjoy my friends because I know the next day it may be different. Adults sometimes say that life goes on. It does, but it feels bad.”
Most parents, of course, don’t want their kids to feel bad. But the ups and downs of adolescent friendships are healthy, says Grayson Holmbeck, professor and director of the clinical psychology doctorate program at Loyola University. “Girls who learn to develop and maintain friendships when they’re young use those same social skills to develop healthy relationships as teens and adults,” he says. “Intense friendships, even if they’re stormy, difficult or rocky, are better than no friendships at all. If you don’t have a friend to practice on, you can’t learn those skills.”
And yes, boys’ and girls’ friendships are different. Boys tend to develop “side-by-side” friendships through shared experiences such as sports, Holmbeck says. Boys talk less about their feelings and may need more encouragement to discuss problems.
Research suggests that girls, on the other hand, are more emotional than boys and need help handling their emotions, Holmbeck says. Girls typically have “face-to-face” friendships. They talk more about intimacy, feel greater anxiety over rejection and are more likely to have exclusive friends. “There’s a dating quality to girls’ friendships even though they are the same sex,” he says.
Listen to your daughter
As girls become more aware of the outside world, they look to other people and the media for clues on how to behave.
“At this age, girls are observing how other people handle emotions, and they’re trying some of these things out for themselves,” says Denise Hayworth, a social worker and assistant director of Communities in Schools in Aurora, part of a national organization that brings community resources into neighboring schools.
“They encounter comfortable feelings and uncomfortable feelings, and they need to know that both are OK,” she says. “It’s the behavior or action that comes from the uncomfortable feelings that can get you into trouble. For example, just because I’m angry doesn’t mean I have to call my best friend names. This is where kids need a lot of guidance.”
While parents might be tempted to dismiss name calling and other immature social behavior, experts say it’s important to listen to your daughter and respect her friendships.
“The kids I talk to who are feeling unsupported or disconnected from their parents say they wish parents would listen more without giving advice,” says Bryn Jessup, a clinical psychologist who works with children and families at his offices in Chicago and Northfield. “It’s hard to sit with your own child when he or she is distressed, but that’s really what’s called for. Be interested, listen and then ask questions to help your child to process what’s going on, rather than just dispensing advice.”
Most kids—boys and girls—are more talkative at certain times—such as bedtime or Sunday evenings, Holmbeck says. He also suggests an indirect approach such as talking about your day while in the car or during downtime at home.
And while cliques are an almost universal part of preteen social behavior, they also can be fairly fluid. “It’s not uncommon for friendships to change in a few days,” Jessup says. “That’s another reason not to be dismissive. If her best friend isn’t talking to her or if she is not speaking to a friend, you are in a position to enlarge her tool kit for coping with social upsets and conflicts. If you don’t have anything else to offer your child, she’ll stop bringing things to your attention.”
Encourage healthy friendships
But don’t try to pick her friends. “Kids figure out friendships for themselves,” Jessup says. “She’ll weigh in on who she wants to socialize with.”
Instead, help your daughter distinguish between healthy and unhealthy friendships. Encourage her to talk about the qualities of a good friend: How do you know if someone is a good friend? What do you like about your friends? How do your friends make you feel? What kind of friend do you want to be?
“It’s a great point to open up a conversation about friendships and it makes it feel safer than talking about a certain person,” says Karen Fiore, assistant director of the Resurrection After School Program at the Resurrection Lutheran Church in Chicago. “Girls need to know it’s OK to have conflict in a relationship with people we love, and it’s a great lesson to learn, even as an adult.”
During the school year, Fiore leads “girl power” meetings to give girls a forum for expressing their feelings among their peers. “I try to teach girls to be direct and make good friendship choices,” she says. “I want them to have the confidence to communicate for themselves. That’s a life skill.”
Still, kids sometimes make unhealthy friendship choices. Hayworth, who has a 10-year-old daughter and a 15-year-old son, suggests setting some parameters. For example, encourage your daughter to invite her friends over to your house or get to know her friends’ parents. “I need to know who my kids are hanging out with,” Hayworth says.
And if Hayworth thought her daughter’s friends were using cigarettes, drugs or alcohol, she would draw the line. “Sometimes you have to say that is not a person you can hang out with,” she says. To prevent that, she suggests talking about ways to avoid unsafe situations and people, and using role playing to teach your daughter how to refuse offers for cigarettes, alcohol and drugs.
Honor requests for privacy
When social conflicts do erupt, girls often discuss them with this caveat: Don’t tell anyone else. Many parents’ first inclination is to intervene anyway. Sometimes that’s the appropriate move—such as if a problem persists for months or if your daughter’s safety is at stake. But in most cases, experts say, it’s better to honor her request for privacy.
“I’ve learned not to interfere so much, to allow my kids to make mistakes, to allow the drama to happen in life,” says Miriam Wade-Hicks, a social worker for Aurora School District 129 and a mother of four kids ages 7 to 17. “But when my kids say they want to work out a problem themselves, I remind them that they are accountable for their actions. Working it out includes showing empathy and taking responsibility.”
Still, there are times when parents need to step in. “I like my mom to give tips but not exactly butt in,” says Wade-Hicks’ daughter, Mia Hicks, 13, who starts eighth grade at Washington Middle School in Aurora this fall. “If it’s something really big, she should talk to other parents, hear their side of the story and hopefully resolve it.”
Marissa Hopkins says she believes in intervention but tries to respect her daughter’s request to not interfere. “When we first moved, Kailey was teased incessantly by another girl because she was the new kid and had upset the apple cart. We brainstormed ways to handle the situation but the problem persisted. Much to her chagrin, I called the other parents who did not want to interfere.”
After six months the situation still had not changed and Kailey agreed to let her mom talk to her teachers.
“When kids aren’t being properly supervised or guided it’s time to step in,” Hopkins says. “When a child is being that hurtful I think it needs parent intervention. She doesn’t have to be friends with my daughter, but she does have to be polite and respectful.” Although the problem did dissipate shortly after, “I don’t think she ever really got it,” Hopkins says.
Determining when to call another parent about a peer conflict is tricky. Wade-Hicks decides on a case-by-case basis, depending on the situation and whether she knows the other parents. If her daughter can’t resolve a conflict at school, she first contacts the teacher. If that doesn’t work, she calls the other parents.
“I would approach it as a concerned parent trying to solve the problem so everyone can learn something,” Wade-Hicks says. “Don’t call another parent to point a finger because you don’t know how they’ll react. I would hope they would reciprocate with a positive approach. If not, you might learn something about the problem.”
Find friends outside of school
School is a natural place to build relationships. But it isn’t the only place for girls to find friends. In fact, some girls are more socially successful off the playground.
“If your child is struggling, don’t have her put all her friendships with the kids she goes to school with every day,” suggests Chicago mom Marcey Harrison, whose daughter Rebecca, now 14, was teased at school in fourth grade because of a learning disability. “Encourage your children to do what they’re good at. For Rebecca, it was always dance. That’s where she met a large circle of friends. We’ve seen that issues at school don’t always carry over to other activities.”
Kailey Hopkins made several friends at summer camp and keeps in touch with her old city friends. “I’ve been with them so long, I know who my true friends are,” she says. “They say you learn that as you get older, but I think I’ve found some.”
Harrison, a single mom, also values family support. “We’re very family oriented,” she says. “We spend a lot of time with cousins and extended cousins. It requires more effort but you get a lot of positive reinforcement from family. Your family always loves you.”
And while some kids make friends more easily than others, there may be a problem if your child doesn’t have any friends. Seek support from a school counselor, therapist, teacher, adult relative or mentor if your child has trouble making friends or if friendships damage her self-esteem. Other red flags include changes in eating or sleeping patterns or school performance.
“It’s not a sign that something’s wrong if your child doesn’t have a best friend, but a kid with no friends is much more concerning,” says Loyola University’s Holmbeck. “If you have a child who is not socializing at all, it is worth asking how they feel about friendships. There may be things they’re not telling you.”
Likewise, seek help if you feel you can’t talk to your daughter or if she’s unwilling or unable to talk to you.
“Early adolescents value a connection with the adult world,” Hayworth says. “Especially as they progress into middle school, they really want to talk to adults who will understand and listen. If there are other adults connected to your child in some way, that’s great. Every child deserves to have a one-on-one relationship with an adult. That’s how kids learn.”
Between ages 8 and 12, the desire to fit into a social group becomes more important to girls. While cliques may bring to mind mean girls and exclusive friendships, they are an unavoidable part of tween social behavior.
“At this age, kids have the developmental capacity to rank, evaluate and become aware of status dimensions, even if it’s of their own making,” says Bryn Jessup, a Chicago psychologist. “Cliques are not always mean and not necessarily pejorative.” It can help girls to find a group of friends that offers support.
Still, some struggle to fit in. “Girls can be extremely cruel if you don’t look, talk and act just like they do,” says a Chicago mom whose daughter graduated from a private elementary school. “I’m proud of her and who she is. It’s just not who the popular kids are now.”
Instead of continuing to be rejected, her daughter made friends with kids a year younger, and expanded her circle with friends from camp.
“It’s really hard to tell your child to ignore things when all she wants is to be accepted,” says the mom.
While it’s easy to categorize girls as “nice” and “mean,” Aurora teen Mia Hicks, 13, cautions not to judge. “There are one or two mean people in every group. Be yourself and talk to the kids that seem nice.”
But that doesn’t mean restricting yourself to one crowd. Mia’s group hang out together. Still her “really, really best friend,” who she’s known since she was 4, is in another group. “It’s good to have lots of different friends,” Mia says.
Chicagoan Rebecca Harrison, 14, says she’s open to meeting new people—but not everyone agree. “Cliques get annoying sometimes,” she says. “I’m not saying it’s a bad thing, but sometimes it makes it harder to make friends. ... Some people think it’s important to be popular, but I like to have friends who like you to be yourself.”
When Kailey Hopkins moved to Highland Park, her older brother met kids with siblings in her grade. “That’s how I met a nice girl who introduced me to her friends and that carried me through,” she says. “Some of the popular kids have been together since preschool and it’s really hard to get to know them. I don’t expect to be in that group. I’d rather be friends with more people.”
Monica Ginsburg is a Chicago writer, the mother of two girls and a frequent contributor to Chicago Parent.